Is “Be Not Afraid” one of your all-time favorite religious songs from the folk revival? For some people, it clearly is. In a timely release, while many have been grappling with fear and losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, Salt and Light Media posted a video featuring Oregon Catholic Press recording artists singing the hymn “Be Not Afraid.” As of this writing, it has been viewed more than 860,000 times. Here is the video, which appeared at the beginning of May.
I found it touching. It’s a sincere and passionate rendition. Most of the singers are performing in a Christian pop/rock style (with a few notes of country). This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea musically. But I see it as part of popular piety. The song has become well-loved because its message speaks to a reality of life and faith: and many have taken it to their heart.
The comments that were posted at You Tube certainly bear witness to this. The song comforts people in their deep losses and speaks a message of Christian trust and hope to them in their hour of need. Here are a few examples from that comment thread:
My husband passed away 6 weeks ago tonight and because of the virus we could only have a graveside service for 10 people, including the priest and funeral director. We played this song. The lyrics and melody are so comforting. Thank you for posting.
I want to thank you for this beautiful collaboration, I can’t begin to explain the strength that it’s giving me. I began chemotherapy today for breast cancer and I just kept playing it over and over again because it was so comforting. Thank you!
Using tomorrow for my sister’s burial
The end was the most poignant moment, as it sounded like a congregation singing. I had forgotten that sound.
Written by Bob Dufford, SJ, in 1972, “Be Not Afraid” has been sung through the years not only in churches at Sunday worship but in families during times of stress, at gravesides, when missionaries are commissioned, on the morning of Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, and by Sr. Helen Prejean while walking death row inmates to their execution. In 2017, America magazine ran a feature about the song, how it was written and the many ways it has been used.
The America article includes an explanation of the fourth verse, added many years later. I was not familiar with this verse, so was interested to learn how it came to be added. To be honest, I regret that it lacks the scriptural echoes so important to the earlier verses, but it certainly speaks to an existential situation. Fr. Dufford’s comments below also respond to a question I had: How did a song about mission become so much associated with death and dying?
Father Dufford said he was puzzled at first when people wrote to him to say that “Be Not Afraid” had comforted their dying loved ones, or themselves when they were mourning.
“For me, it was a song of transition,” he said. “There was a fear, but it was a fear of going from one place to another in the [Jesuits], ending one thing and starting another. I didn’t know what was going to come, and I had this sense of the promise of God: ‘I go before you always.’”
As he grew older, Father Dufford began to understand that growing old and dying is a transition: “That’s the big one,” he said.
He began working with a group of aging religious sisters in Oshkosh, Wis., whom he had guided through the Spiritual Exercises. Many of them had led active lives in ministry and were now struggling with what Father Dufford called “the diminishment of aging and letting go.”
After his father died, Father Dufford sought to put words to what his father and the sisters had gone through, so he added a new verse to “Be Not Afraid”:
And when the earth has turned beneath you and your voice is seldom heard,
When the flood of gifts that blessed your life has long since ebbed away,
When your mind is thick and hope is thin and dark is all around,
I will stand beside you till the dawn.
“That’s what I saw in my dad at the time, and I see some of that in myself now, too,” Father Dufford said.
“When these [songs] come back and start preaching to me, touching my heart, that’s when I’ve arrived,” Father Dufford said.
People have played recordings of popular secular music in hospitals during the pandemic, as a way to celebrate taking patients off ventilators, and as a way to keep up the spirits of health care staff. How is this song different? As I see it, the song “Be Not Afraid” is about taking courage (as many secular songs are), but it approaches the subject in a very different way. It’s not a cheer-you-up song or something that celebrates our own personal resilience. It’s not “Rocky,” or “Here Comes the Sun,” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Rather, it invites trust in God in the midst of the darkness of not-knowing, precisely in those times when we are afraid.
A couple of thoughts about what all this shows. First, when someone composes a song, no one knows where it will go. People receive it as they choose, and — like any creative endeavor — it really does take on a life of its own. In this case, the life it took on later came back to the composer himself as a blessing. There’s a lesson in that, captured long ago in Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread upon the waters for you will find it after many days.” Be not afraid to share your gifts!
Second, thoughtful people have lamented the unwillingness of our society today to grapple in a significant way with the fact of mortality. Relentlessly pressured to keep an upbeat tone, we hand over to professionals the rituals that used to accompany death and dying, and funerals are increasingly replaced by a “celebration of life.” Mourning itself is not valued, and so forth. I think all of this is true and an important critique. At the same time, the remarks I quoted above (the ones that were made in response to the YouTube video) suggest that people are in fact grappling with mortality and suffering in their lives. They are not simply pushing it all away or insisting on happy talk, much less distracting themselves with anger or blaming. Religious music — a unique medium of popular piety — is actually helping them to grieve and mourn, and to come to terms with the hard realities of human life. For this, we can only say: Thanks be to God.